A Breastfeeding Trauma Survivor
By Asha Crocker
*Please be warned, there may be some triggering parts to my story as well as some triggering pictures.
My wish is that by sharing my experience and journey, I can give hope and support to another breastfeeding parent going through similar, and perhaps give them the light they need to see through the darkness and the strength to keep going.
E was born 'unexpectedly' at 37 weeks. I certainly wasn’t prepared for an earlier-than-expected birth and I had only just packed my hospital bag, literally just a few days before. We had even collected our wedding photos the day that I was clearly in pre-labour. Life was going on as usual with me in complete denial. Gosh I was feeling like crap!
My waters started to break and trickle, along with period-like cramping contractions around 12am. After a bath (yup, I shaved my legs between contractions too- I shan’t be bothering this time!) and after A (hubby) packed the car up and spent an age trying to do the car seat, I decided that it was time to go to the MLU around 4am and he was born just 4 hours later at 8:18am. I was hoping for him to be at least overdue, because being a teacher, I wanted and planned for a September baby so I could make full use of the summer holidays and not have a summer-born child. It didn't happen! We had a perfect water birth. He arrived in the middle of the August heatwave in 2013; he was small but not dinky, weighing just 6lb11oz.
We had a little bit of skin to skin and I tried to get him to breastfeed. As a first time mum, I soaked up all the stories that breastfeeding hurts to begin with, so I didn’t know any better. It hurt. A lot. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I had no idea how to attach him, other than what it looked like in pictures that I’d seen in baby books and magazines. Everything I knew about breastfeeding was from two piddly pages in “Your Pregnancy: Day by Day”. I can’t even remember how often he tried to feed on the first day, I just remember that he slept a lot.
We stayed in hospital overnight as I wasn't happy with his feeding and refused to go home. A wasn’t allowed to stay with me, so he went home to sleep. I didn’t sleep a wink and kept staring at my little bundle next to me. Why didn’t I pick him up and have cuddles? As a first time mum, I didn’t know that *I was allowed to*. Yep, that’s right. Allowed to pick my own son up from the clear plastic box he was housed in, that created a physical barrier to us connecting with each other.
When I did attempt to feed him, the pain didn't improve. The Maternity Care Assistant at 2am helped me to hand express some colostrum on to my nipple to try and entice him to feed and when that didn’t work, she then tried shaping my breast and literally shoving him on, but even with her help, it wasn’t great. She was the only one that tried to give me practical support. Every other midwife I saw during the day after he was born said his latch looked fine, his nappies were wet and he was passing lots of meconium and so they left after a couple of checks. No one spent more than 5 minutes with me. We were discharged home in the afternoon on the second day.
E continued to sleep a lot and we still had to wake him up for feeds and each feed was making me more and more sore. I was absolutely physically and emotionally exhausted too, after getting no sleep the night before and trying so hard to feed E. Day 3 and my boobs were rock hard and milk was “in”. I got no relief from my sore and hard lumpy breasts after feeding and E found it increasingly difficult to attach. E didn't seem to take much milk as he'd only feed for a few minutes, sometimes for as little as 2 minutes and then quickly fell asleep. These short feeds really panicked me and made me anxious.
It wasn't just the “usual” discomfort I experienced; it was pinching, it was fire, it was like sandpaper rubbing on my nipples. They were compressed and went white. Somehow, my gut knew that E was supposed to feed more often and for longer than he was, but he didn't. He was often asleep and had to be woken for feeds and I was told by midwives at the hospital that lots of sleep was normal after birth, so I tried not to worry.
My nipples were starting to crack, bleed and stick to the breast pads; I cried and curled my toes with every feed. The pain was excruciating, like shards of glass were passing through my nipples. The community midwife on day 3 visit said E was starting to look jaundiced. She tried to reassure me that it was common for breastfed babies, but of course I had to Dr Google search it.
We ended up being referred to hospital the next day as he was starting to get very yellow. For four long days, we endured trips to and from the hospital, with lots of waiting around, being told that he needed more milk, yet *no one* was helping me to breastfeed. E being held down by two nurses and me, to draw blood for tests, which made breastfeeding even harder because he didn’t want to latch after being so distressed. This, I think, was the point in which was the start of my traumatic journey with breastfeeding. My little boy being held down by nurses and me, him screaming his lungs out as they tried to find a viable vein to take his blood. I still have nightmares about this now, 6 years later. Only in my nightmares, they couldn’t find any veins to poke and the screaming got worse, he got worse and extremely ill to the point we didn’t bring him home alive...
I will never forget how that experience made me feel: I felt like it was ALL MY FAULT. I was starving him, I was making him ill, that I was already failing at being his mum at just 4 days in. That I was SELFISH for wanting to feed him from me. I was a FAILURE. I shouldn’t have had a baby because I couldn’t feed him properly myself or look after him well enough so he didn’t get ill. I didn’t DESERVE to be his mum. The dark, negative, self-depreciating thoughts kept coming and was beginning to drown me.
We were told by the consultant paediatrician to top E up with formula to expel the bilirubin faster, yet not ONE person told me or showed me how to express or pump for him and use my breast milk instead. I had milk literally pouring out of my boobs, I was sore and engorged, yet I was giving him formula on the advice of the doctor.
Days stuck in hospital meant I did a lot of Facebook, which meant I joined a few online breastfeeding support groups and did *so. much. Googling* that I’m sure I read literally everything that there was to know about breastfeeding and jaundice. There was so much conflicting “advice” and I didn’t know which sites to trust... even the NHS one wasn’t up to date, I soon found out! One of my best friends lent me her pump when she came to visit and it turned out to be a lifesaver. I pumped for E and it took me just 10 minutes to pump 120ml from one boob, which meant I could give up the formula and use my milk for all supplementation.
His bilirubin continued to rise whilst we were in the hospital. He was given phototherapy for a couple of days and I continued to pump and tried to breastfeed as often as I was allowed (which was every 3 hours on the dot) because he was in the special billi lightbox- but it hurt so, so much. His levels eventually came down, thanks to the light treatment and breast milk from a bottle and we were soon discharged from hospital.
When home, the midwife signed us off at 10 days as there were 'no issues' as he was pooping and weeing well and was slowly gaining his birth weight back and his colour looked better. Most of his early pictures around the home are in black and white because he was so orange. It was heartbreaking for me to see him that colour. My Health Visitor said his weight was fine when she came to visit and did all of the assessments. But I *knew* that nappy output was fine because I was pumping and he was getting bottled breast milk; what I really *needed* was breastfeeding support to be able to feed at the breast. For a further 3 weeks, I went to my GP often about our feeding issues, green poop, projectile vomiting up my bedroom walls, lack of sleep and constant screaming (unless being held), only to be fobbed off, told it was colic/reflux and told 'not to be a martyr' and to switch to bottle feeding. I was accused by the male doctor of having PND, instead of being listened to and supported.
The online groups were so helpful in pointing me towards information to help with latch, different positions, directed me to info on tongue ties and giving me much emotional support. I honestly thought that something so natural and normal to do wouldn't be this hard.
E was still very yellow, so we kept up with the walks in sunshine. I was producing a lot of milk, but E wasn't drinking it from the breast properly (he’d gag, cough and splutter when feeding, then projectile vomit a lot of milk after feeds unless he was upright) and so I got recurrent blocked ducts, blebs and mastitis so many times. Pumping definitely contributed to my mastitis issues due to poor pumping technique, oversupply and E not able to drain the breast properly when he did feed from me.
My nipples were still cracked and bleeding and they were red-raw and shredded. Every single feed was burning and had shooting pains through my breasts at every single feed.
E couldn't settle. He would cry for ages after a feed, regardless if breast or bottle, due to so much air trapped in his tummy and not having a proper seal around the bottle teat (he’d dribble milk out of the sides of his mouth). We got no sleep. I was literally at breaking point and bottle feeding did not make it any better for us at all. Yet, I still went to my Dad’s wedding day, when all I wanted was sleep and try to fix what was wrong with my baby. My face may have shown a bright smile, but inside I was numb. I didn’t want to be there, after over a week in hospital.
I eventually went to my local face to face breastfeeding peer support groups, such as the ones at my local Childre